Dear Fellow Musicians,
In January 2010 I had the opportunity to audition for the guitarist position on Lady Gaga’s international arena tour. I made it to the final 15 guitarists and learned a few valuable things about the music business, particularly the music world outside of Berklee. I think it is definitely worth reading this because the experience was fascinating.
The audition opportunity fell on my lap by sheer luck. My brother’s girlfriend received the information from an acting forum she belongs to, and she passed the application information on to me so that I could submit. I emailed some links to the casting company and after they reviewed my website and videos, I got an appointment reservation. Here is exactly what my email to the casting company said:
My name is Ben Levin and I am a guitarist interested in auditioning for Lady Gaga’s band. I am available for all of the audition, rehearsal, and performance dates if I get the gig, and I believe I would be an excellent fit for Lady Gaga’s music and energy on stage. I am currently a guitar performance major at Berklee College of Music in Boston and have a lot of performance experience in my own band Ben Levin Group as well as several other projects in Boston. I am experienced in rock, pop, electronic, jazz, and funk music and have excellent stage presence. Here is a video of me playing with my band so you can hear/see what I do. Of course I will dress more Gaga’esque when I play her music:
Here is my website for some more examples:
I hope you enjoy the music!
After I found out that I had been accepted to audition, I immediately began absorbing Lady Gaga’s repertoire. I learned as many songs of hers as possible, starting with the ones that have guitar parts, and then moving on to her top hits and newest songs. I ended up knowing 13 of the songs by the time of the audition. I also bought an audition-appropriate outfit at a used clothing store. I tried to pick clothes that reflected her music videos.
The first day of auditions was on Monday, January 18th, 2010 in New York City. The audition was supposed to start at 11:30 so I arrived at 10:50 to warm up and get used to the environment. The waiting area before the audition was full of people dressed in insane outfits straight out of The Matrix. I remember feeling intimidated by how many people there were and how much crazier their outfits were than mine. Many of the musicians looked like they were headed to a rave in the year 2070. Most of the other musicians auditioning were friendly with a few exceptions. It was a good enough atmosphere and I was fortunate enough to see a few of my friends from Berklee waiting, as well.
A few hours went by and the casting staff told the guitarists to line up. They took roll to make sure we all had received confirmation emails. I turned to the guitarist in front of me and said, ‘Man! I can’t believe I am really about to do this!’
She replied, ‘Why? We are musicians, this is our job.’
‘Yeah, but this is the biggest band in the world right now and we are auditioning for an arena tour.’ I replied.
She answered with a long-winded response about how she went to jazz school and blah blah blah blah blah blah…..
I stopped listening and started thinking about what it must feel like to be that jaded.
The audition room was a big hall with stadium seating and a huge mirror for a wall that made it look twice as big as it was. At the front of the room was a panel of 4 judges that looked like they were pulled straight out of American Idol. They didn’t look intimidating to me, and actually seemed pretty friendly. Beyond the panel there was a full band setup including a drum set, keyboard, and guitar and bass amplifiers. The guitar amp was a Fender Twin Reverb.
When all of the guitarists were seated, one of the judges picked up her microphone and explained that playing guitar for Lady Gaga is the easiest job in the world, and that what they are really looking for is a guitarist who can rock a whole stadium with great stage presence. To me that meant that I would have to jump and play really bombastically. The guitarists were told to play a pop song of their choosing and then some Gaga material. The first five guitarists lined up and the auditions began.
The first guitarist played for about 6 seconds before the judges told him to stop. At that point I realized that I would have to grab their attention immediately and I began planning what I was going to do. Most of the guitarists that followed performed without looking up at the judges or rocking out at all. There were some good players with no presence, but overall the atmosphere was dead. When it was finally my turn to play, I walked up to the amp, plugged in, and stated in a monotone, ‘Hello my name is Ben Levin and I am going play ‘Summerboy’ by Lady Gaga.’ Then I screamed, ‘ONE!!!!!! TWO!!!!! THREE!!!!! FOUR!!!!!!!!’ and began to play ‘Summerboy’ as if it was a cut off of a Rage Against The Machine record.
I flailed around and jumped with the riffs and to my surprise the cable came out of my guitar (not that surprising really.) When the cable came out I kept playing and ran up to the judges table, so they could hear my guitar acoustically. That made them laugh and they applauded. They told me I should plug back in and show them a ‘rocking mad crazy shredding solo.’ I went up to the amp cranked the distortion all the way and played a Gaga riff, then soloed over it. Keep in mind this audition did not allow for backing tracks and I was playing by myself. I outlined the chord progression from the Gaga riff as I played, and used a lot of rhythmic phrasing in addition to playing fast. I also used the whammy bar a lot. (NOTE: These details are VERY IMPORTANT, as you will see if you read on to what happens at my next audition when I failed to phrase well……)
After I finished, I left the hall and the casting director told me that I had made it to final callbacks the next day. I was thrilled! Really really really excited!!
The next day I waited around all day practicing the Gaga songs and arrived for the 4:30 callback at 3:50. When I arrived I found out that Lady Gaga had left and would see selected musicians in an additional third audition the next day. I cringed at the thought of missing three days of school and possibly not getting into the band, but I quickly realized that I was learning a lot at the audition that I couldn’t learn anywhere else. As I waited around for the audition to start, I talked to some of the other guitarists and my Berklee friends who had made callbacks.
The guitarists were generally really nice people. One person was a Berklee graduate who moved to LA. He gave me a lot of advice, stating that LA is the place to go if you want to tour with other bands a lot, and New York is the place for jazz, but he didn’t know which was better if you are leading your own band. I met another guitarist who graduated from USC. He was really cool and friendly. He was older and more experienced then me, and I could tell that he knew what he was doing (turns out I was right, he made it through to meet Gaga). 2 hours passed slowly and the guitarists were finally lined up to audition. I had the misfortune of being called 2nd in line. We entered the same hall, however this time there were more people sitting at the judges table. The judges seemed like they were getting tired and the casting staff was a lot more stressed out than they had been the day before. We were told to play a solo and then some Gaga. They also made a point to emphasize the importance of stage presence.
So, there I was… In a group of 15 guitarists from all over the world, dressed up like vampire bikers and about to play in front of managers, casting directors, famous musicians and who knows who else, for a spot on an international arena tour with the biggest name to hit pop music in a long time. It was so surreal, and I couldn’t help but smile. The guitarist before me seemed to be a well-established guitarist already. The judges appeared to have heard of him. He played pretty well, but didn’t freak out the way I thought they wanted us to. So, in my head I figured, ‘Let’s take yesterday’s fiasco up a notch.’ It was my turn to audition and I went about everything the same way as I had the day before but slightly more insane.
I plugged my guitar in, checked the tone for less than a second, then asked the judges if they were ready. I proceeded to play all of the open strings really loud, then I played a bunch of over the top shred and hit a really high note (B bent up to C# 19th fret.) I held the note and kept hammering into it (no reverb channel on the amp, so that didn’t sound as good as I had hoped.) I started simulating the love act with my guitar and then I picked it up by its whammy bar and held a really high harmonic while pointing to the sky. I looked the judges right in the eye and started playing ‘Just Dance’ by Gaga. They stared at me blankly as I ran back and forth across the stage, and I realized that they didn’t get it. I finished and knew that I wouldn’t get to the next round. I forgot to groove and phrase well. Every guitarist after me tried to out-shred me, and even though a lot of them were sloppy, some players were good enough that it made my playing seem average. Then, a couple players went really crazy onstage literally smashing guitars, which made me seem even more average. I know that if I had gone later, my strategy would have changed, but that’s just how it goes. The truth is that a lot of the guitarists were very good. Four of them were exceptionally good in my opinion.
Here are things that they did, that I will do next time I audition:
- Three of them made great use of effects pedals, particularly octave, loops, whammy, and delay.
- They all avoided moving around too much while playing the rhythm guitar parts so they all established a great groove and solid performance from the start, but moved more later in the performance when they were more comfortable and had already demonstrated a solid groove.
- They all shredded a little. Not a ton, but enough so that they showed their chops.
- They all played for as long as they could, and didn’t cut themselves off until several minutes had passed.
- Three of them looked the part (which makes me really impressed with the fourth guitarist who got through with just blue jeans and a flannel shirt.)
Here are some things that I found disturbing about the process:
- One guitarist who made it to the final rounds was an attractive girl. She was very friendly and played with a lot of energy but was having a rough audition. After she played the judges asked her to remove her coat so they could see her body better. She had a great figure and one judge who never said anything throughout the whole audition process looked up from his cell phone and exclaimed, ‘That’s what’s up!!’ The judges nodded at each other and she sat back down. I am not going to say whether or not she made it through because of her looks, her playing, or both, because anything I state on the subject is purely speculation and I don’t want to assume anything. What I will say, however, is that I thought it was demeaning to her since they never inspected any of the male guitarists, and it was my first significant brush with the sad but predictable reality that the pop industry has a shallow and rotten side to it.
- They never asked the guitarists or any of the instrumentalists to play in a band setting, and I think that makes the audition less effective at picking out the best group.
- The drummers’ final audition was a drum-off (synonymous with shred-off.) I don’t see how that will result in finding the best drummer for Lady Gaga’s band.
Final thoughts and important observations:
- If you get an audition, begin preparing as early and thoroughly as possible and have a resume ready.
- Be as good at your instrument as possible. Learn how to shred, learn how to groove, learn how to improvise, learn how to move while you play.
- Dress the part for auditions but don’t put too much weight on that.
- Remember tone and groove are just as important (not more or less) as chops. (At least for this audition.)
No audition in the future will ever be exactly the same as this, so I actually have no idea if any of my advice will apply to your experiences, but if there’s one thing you can count on, it’s that you will have to be able to deal with chaos. No matter how much you prepare, you will face surprises. A friend of mine told me, ‘Luck is when good preparation and opportunity meet.’ I definitely believe that now.